Good News? Ouch that hurts! Luke 3:7-18 Advent 2 C

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This has to be the most tongue in cheek ending to a scathing prophetic proclamation, “…with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”! John has just made it clear that God is not a nepotist, that he axes trees of tradition, and that he burns all that is not fruitful from his presence, and Luke suggests that is good news?

Surely this must be wry Middle-eastern wit?  Either that or Luke knows something that we don’t.

The secret to understanding that these purifying and pruning practices could be good news, the gospel, comes from moving their reference from outer collective religious practice to the internal and personal realm of divine development.

It was Richard Rohr who woke me up to understanding that one of Jesus’ greatest contributions to our understanding of God was that he moved our location for God’s presence from the outer to the inner.  From temple to heart, from observance to lifestyle.  And, Rohr concludes, when I am the temple where God resides then the only sacrifice required is myself.

So Jesus, says John the Baptiser, does not disrespect culture, tradition, lineage, or any social register that is so important in our outer lives. Jesus doesn’t disrespect them, he ignores them.  They are irrelevant.

Who of us has not smarted or winced at some moment of humiliation in our journey. Just when we had made it.  Right after the ordained us, or called us Reverend (what the heck does that title mean anyway?) Just after we became Senior Pastor, or Superintendent, or wait for it Bishop; along came Jesus and called us by our birth name.  He called us what our parents and siblings called us, and then he told us to leave it all behind and follow him.

That is the axing, winnowing and burning John is talking about.  It is the threshing of our pride and ego.  It is the burning of our BS. (Yes, you KNOW what that stands for and I meant to use it like that)

There is just no escape from the confrontation with pride and arrogance if we are to follow the King of Love.

That great Lebanese soul Kahlil Gibran got it spot on when he wrote in The Prophet.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Advent is not for the arrogant and powerful.  You and your ego, have to stoop low to enter the stall.

The catharsis of not cutting. Easter5

John 15:1-8

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As winter creeps darkly toward us in the Southern Hemisphere I see my horticultural friends wielding their most feared weapons, the seccateurs. Knowing just where to cut, they lop and lunge at every bush and tree until skeletal forms remain where foliage once flourished and the ground is littered with sticks and stalks.  It is botanical carnage.  Essential, I am told, but carnage nonetheless!

In the history of Christianity there have many, and some very interesting, aberrant groups commonly called heretics.  The word heretic comes from “hairetikos=able to choose”.  So  a heretic was judged by the church hierarchy to be one who had chosen to believe and profess in opposition to official  doctrine and as a result, had to be silenced.  Such silencing usually involved the cutting off of the heretical, “wrong choice” person or group from the church community. In dark and dangerous times it also involved the cutting off of body parts from the heretic either during the trial to determine heresy or eventually to cut the heretic off as a consequence of the bad choice they had made.  In the latter case the most favoured body part to be severed was the head.  The head that had made the wrong choice was thus removed from the body, symbolising the cleansing of the church by the removal of the heretic.  It was another carnage. Not botanical pruning, this time it was human carnage.  At least gardeners don’t hear the plants scream!

I am glad to report that this Inquisitorial practice is no longer part of church management though the language echoing that dreadful past remains with us in phrases like, “heads are going to roll” and “losing your head” about something or someone.  The Inquisitors, who were the head lopping pruners of the medieval church considered themselves tasked with “cleansing” the church of error.  They saw themselves as those who were doing the pruning work that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading.

In fact the word that John’s gospel uses for prune is  katharei=to cleanse. We still reference the word when speaking of cathartic experiences.  Those moments when we, through grief or pain, are cleared out and cleansed.  Inquisitors saw themselves as cleansing the church through the pruning of heretics.  Painful it might have been, but prudent for the preservation of power.

One of the best known groups of heretics in Europe also take their name from this word katharo.  They are the Cathars who are refered to in the Council of Nicaea in 325 but which emerged as an autonomous movement of strict Christians in the 12th Century in the Rhineland and Northern France.   These heretical,  “wrong-choicers”  were completely exterminated with the loss of many pruned and roasted body parts by the 12th and 13th century Inquisitions. The Cathars had some strange ideas about no re-marriage afetr widowhood and who also maintained that there was no way to do penance for sin that was committed after baptism.  A rather serious bunch they were. A kind of puritanical movement before the Puritans if you know what I mean?  How ironic then that the Cleansed Ones = Cathars were “cleansed” by the Inquisition.  Something Rwandan with Auschwitzian echoes here don’t you think?

Anyway, the Church needed to get rid of them.  They were just not with the Roman programme.  So the Inquisitors arrived and the heads rolled.   A vast pruning purge which, despite novel romantic notions of links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, surely represents one of the lowest ebbs of Christian history?

So it is with my mind awash with horticulture and history, that I eventually come to the Sunday gospel.

It fascinates me that in John’s gospel there are only two parables recorded.  Last Sunday Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the one parable, and this week he refers to himself as the Vine in the second.  If the writer of the last canonical gospel to be written  opted for only these two similes they must be pivotal to describe Jesus.

Now, if Jesus is the the Vine with a Shepherd’s heart, and only God is the gardener, then a few realities seem to bud and sprout from that:

  • Only God is qualified to wield the pruning tools.
  • Every severance is painful to Jesus.
  • Believing that we have the right to prune the church as Christ followers is not only arrogant, it is blasphemous (playing God) and may indeed rebound in the axe wielder being axed for usurpation!  Cathars are cleansed!

No, for me it is clear. The church is not called to prune, that is God’s job. Faggots of fruitless followers are God’s business not mine.

The church is called to fruit by remaining connected to the life giving/love flowing sap of the Shepherd-Vine.

It is through fruitful love and life, not through severance and sectarianism, that I become his disciple.  Of course if you don’t agree, you can always cut me off.